Sunday, August 19, 2018

Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians Part 1 by Bobby Derie

In another alteration of the basic captivity theme, Marylin is held not by a dark-skinned man, but by a dark-skinned woman. The sexual threat is not eliminated, however, as Howard implies a sadistic lesbian relationship, something of a recurring theme in his work. (Trout 75)

Cross Plains, Texas

In 1926 Cross Plains, Texas was in an oil boom, and Robert E. Howard was working odd jobs, seven nights a week, with little time to write. His letters to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith are filled with verse, and on occasion, sex. Growing up mainly in a small Texas town, their sexual education would not have been in any way formal. They picked things up through conversation, practical experience, and in many cases reading. These exchanges would have a formative influence on how Howard understood female homosexuality, and how that conception featured in his fiction. Over time, this would form the recurring theme noted by Trout.

Sapphism & Psychology

According to George Sylvester Viereck; “Love in its spiritual aspect he (Swinburne) knows not. His amorous fancy feeds upon the esoteric, things ‘monstrous and fruitless’. The ordinary relation between sexes engages him only when it is sadistic.” And again, quoting Viereck; “Modern science has divested perversion of its evil glamor. Freud has taught us that perversity is an essential phase in the evolution of childhood…occurring at all times in a fairly constant percentage of human beings. Swinburne adds a new complexity. He does not turn toward his own sex. His passion goes out to woman, but he loves woman, not with the passion of a man for a maid, but with the hectic craving of Lesbian woman for her own sex.”
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, 23 Jun 1926, CL1.106

Howard quotes from Viereck’s introduction to Algernon Charles Swineburne’s Poems and Ballads, published as Little Blue Book #791. It is the first mention in his letters of lesbians, and part of his earliest discussion of homosexuality and bisexuality in general. In the same letter, Howard relates to Smith:

Thus it would seem that a pervert is a man or woman who gets little or no pleasure out of intercourse, but must seek some other method to stimulate the senses or the imagination. Opium smokers revel in sexual debauches which are purely imaginary but from which they doubtless obtain more pleasure than from actual deeds. The smoking of opium does not produce the effect of seeming intercourse, but vague thoughts, fantasies, float through the being dimly arousing all the hidden lust. A pervert may be born that way, or may be a worn-out libertine who has lost his ordinary lust through indulgence. They are usually more or less bisexual, naturally.
That is my theory and much of it is probably erroneous. Perversion is a mark of decadence. It flourishes in all fading nations. Men’s virility dwindle and fade; they feel the need of sexual desire, which has always been taught as necessary, but they lack the basic lust. So they turn to more obscene ways. (CL1.104)

Homosexuality began to come to academic attention in the 19th century, with works like Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1896), Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion (1897), Alfred Eulenberg’s Algolagnia: The Psychology, Neurology and Physiology of Sadistic Love and Masochism (trans. 1934) and psychosexual studies continued in the 20th century by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. Howard’s views in his 1926 letter characterize “perversion” as a deviation from heterosexual practices. Although this leaves open what exactly counts as “perversion,” it explicitly includes homosexual acts. This would have been the common view of most laymen and professionals during the 1920s, as when Freud wrote:

The perversions are either (a) anatomical transgressions of the bodily regions destined for sexual union, or (b) a lingering at the intermediary relations to the sexual object which should normally be rapidly passed on the way to the definite sexual aim. (Freud, trans. Brill)

Sigmund Freud
Notably absent from Howard’s line of thought is the idea of “sexual inversion”—the characterization of homosexuality as a mismatch between physical gender and sexual identity—which was the leading psychological theory on homosexuality in the 1920s. Freud however argued that humans are innate bisexual, and homosexuality or heterosexuality was a result of culture and experience:

The conception which we gather from this long known anatomical fact is the original predisposition to bisexuality, which in the course of development has changed to monosexuality, leaving slight remnants of the stunted sex.
(Freud, trans. Brill)

Freud’s theories on bisexuality and perversion, possibly filtered through Viereck and other writers, influenced Howard’s conception of sexuality, and were worked into his own system of ideas. Homosexuality is never alone in any of Howard’s depictions; it is almost characterized like a neurosis. The “hectic craving of a Lesbian woman for her own sex” bespeaks not just sexual preference but obsession. “Lesbians” are never exclusively interestested in women, and likewise male homosexuality is never explicitly recognized, but subsumed under bisexuality:

If you got a flock of E.H.J.’s books, you’ve doubtless read “A Little Maid of Sappho.” Talk about perversion. Lesbianism runs rampant. But hell, most poets of that type were and are perverts. It makes no difference. We’re all swine and fools. Swinburne was a pervert, “The Isle of Lesbos” were his favorite theme. Wilde wasn’t a pervert, though he was highly bi-sexual. I don’t know whether Viereck is a pervert or not but listen;

The isles of Lesbos hide no dell
Where bides a rapture strange or new
But white wan ghosts of dead sins dwell
In Capri’s grottoes monstrous blue.
* * * * * * *
With every bond of nature riven
And broken every gyve that bars
In the concupiscence of heaven,
And in the incest of the stars.
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, 21 Aug 1926, CL1.111-112

Howard quotes from “Nero in Capri,” which along with “A Little Maid of Sappho” was included in The Haunted House and Other Poems, Little Blue Book #578; “E. H. J.” is Emmanuel Haldemann-Julius, the publisher of the Little Blue Books. “Lesbian” and related terms relate to the isle of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, and more specifically to the poet Sappho of Lesbos (6th century BCE), whose poetry has been characterized as displaying a love for women. In the late 19th century, due to poets like Swinburne making references in poems such as “Sapphics” (1866), terms like Sapphic, sapphist, sapphinism, lesbian, and lesbianism came to refer to the concept of love between women. By the 1920s “Lesbian” was commonly understood as “female homosexual.” As a poet, Sappho was an object of admiration for Robert E. Howard, who wrote:

Let us look at the records of the great women. Sappho: doubtless the greatest woman poet who ever lived; certainly one of the greatest of all time. The direct incentive of the lyric age of Greece, the age that for pure beauty, surpasses all others. How shall a pen like mine sing of the beauties of Sappho, of the golden streams which flowed from her pen, of her voice which was fairer than the song of a dark star, of the fragrance of her hair and shimmering loveliness of her body? Has it been proven that she was a Lesbian in the generally accepted sense of the word? Who ever accused her but the early Christian—ignorant monks and monastery swine who were set on breaking all the old golden idols; and Daudet, a libertine, a groveling ape who could see no good in anything; Mure, a drunkard and a blatant braggart whose word I hold of less weight than a feather drifting before a south wind. May the saints preserve Comparetti who was man enough to uphold pure womanhood, and scholar enough to prove what he said. No prude was Sappho but a full blooded woman, passionate and open hearted with a golden song and a soul large enough to enfold the whole world.
—Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, Dec 1928, CL1.287

This material on Sappho (and related material in the letter on other Greek women) is drawn from the first volume of Women of All Ages in All Countries (114-115). Howard would reference Sappho in his poems “Flaming Marble,” “The Road to Babel,” “Skulls and Orchids” and the untitled verse which begins "Sappho, The Grecian hills are gold" and in a letter:

In the lure of the woods the bullfrog broods on the songs of Sappho’s lovers, and the rattlesnake o’er the dreaming brake, flitters and flies and hovers.
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, Mar 1929, CL1.340

Howard is also known to have read The Complete Works of Pierre Lou├┐s, which he gave as a Christmas gift to Novalyne Price (Ellis 133-139). This book contains “The Songs of Bilitis,” erotic prose poems inspired by (and partially borrowing from) the works of Sappho.

Dabbling in Lesbianism in Verse & Prose

In June 1928, Robert E. Howard sent his friend Harold Preece a blank postcard from Piedras Negras in Mexico. (CL4.16) This bordertown was known to have a “boy’s town” where prostitution was legal (or at least tacitly permitted), and while it isn’t clear if Howard indulged, he did write about visiting it. (CL3.505) In a letter to Lovecraft he would describe it with mild exaggeration:

[...] those dives so popular in Mexican border towns, where naked prostitutes of both sexes and various Latin races first dance before the customers, then copulate with each other and then indulge in various revolting perversions for the entertainment of the crowd, which is generally made up of tourists. (CL3.356)

After Howard returned from Mexico, his poetry and writing took a decidedly more erotic turn than the previous efforts. In particular several poems from around that time refer implicitly or explicitly to lesbianism:

Here is another rime which I intend to inaugurate in my volume of verses of perversion and mania: Shrieks and Chants From Pale Shadows:

My husband’s brother’s wife is a woman I fear and hate.
My husband does not understand how I feel toward his brother’s mate.
A tall dark strong young woman like an Egyptian queen,
With motions slow and cat-like and eyes with a brooding sheen.
My husband does not understand and he thinks that it is not right—
He does not know what she did to me in her bedroom one night.
She lifted me in her strong round arms; the room was dark and still.
The only light was the moon that gleamed over the window sill.
Her kisses were eager and lingering, hinting of strange dark thrills
Till I thought somehow of Grecian nights and the moon on Egypt’s hills.
Her voice was like the purr of a cat, so lazy and sure and slow
Till I grew afraid in that darkened room and begged her to let me go.
She only laughed a low soft laugh — her eyes held a brooding light,
As crushing my struggles in her cool arms she stripped me as naked as night.
She placed her lips between my breasts, her kisses burnt my skin.
Her cold arms lapped my shivering form like the touch of a nameless sin.
Sudden she stood and with one move let all her garments fall;
Her terrible beauty caught my breath, so dusky and strange and tall.
Naked and regal she stood there like a nude queen of the Nile
With her dusky breasts and ivory legs and her faint alluring smile.
Then a sinuous step she made toward me as leopards rise from their crouch.
She drew me shrinking into her arms and laid me upon a couch.
My husband does not understand my hatred and my fright.
He does not know what she did to me there on her couch that night.

Here’s another:

From whence this grim desire?
What was the wine in my blood
That raced through my veins like fire
And beat at my brain like a flood?

Bare is the desert’s dust,
Deep is the emerald sea —
Barer my deathless lust
Deeper the hunger of me.

Goddess I sit and brood —
They cringe to my Hell-lit eyes
The wretched women nude
I have gripped between my thighs.

As they writhed between my hands
And the ocean heard their screams
Firing my passions’ brands
As I dreamed my lurid dreams.

Their breath came fast and hot
Their tresses were Hades’ mesh;
World and the worlds were not;
Flesh against pulsing flesh.

Their white limbs fluttered and tossed
They whimpered beneath my grasp
And their maidenhood was lost
In strange unnatural clasp.

What was it turned my face
From brown limbed Grecian boys,
Weary of their embrace
To darker and barer joys?

A miser wearied of coins
I wearied of early charms
Of youths who ungirt my loins,
Restless, sighed in their arms.

I turned to the loves I prize
Found joy amid perfumed curls
In a hoyden’s amorous sighs
In the tears of naked girls.

Goddess I sit and laugh
Nude as the scornful moon —
World and the worlds are chaff.
Say, shall my day be soon?

This next is of a Roman dame whose name I can’t remember though I have read of her sadism — I’ll try to title it correctly when I bring out the book. One thing about mythological and historical rime, you don’t have to make up stuff. You just embellish the facts with a few musical words and rhymes.

There is a strangeness in my soul
A dark and brooding sea.
Nor all the waves on Capri’s shoal
Might stay the thirst of me.

For men have come and men have gone
For pleasure and for hire.
Though they lay broken at the dawn
They did not quench my fire.

My pity is a deathly ruth
I burn men with my eyes.
Oh, would all men were one strong youth
To break between my thighs.

And many a man his fortune spread
To glut my ecstasy
As I lay panting on his bed
In shameless nudity.

But all of ancient Egypt’s gold
Can never equal this,
Nor all the treasures kingdoms hold,
A single hour of bliss.

Within my villa’s high domain
Are boys from Britain’s rocks
And dark eyed slender lads from Spain
And Greeks with perfumed locks.

And youths of soft and subtle speech
From furtherest Orient,
Wherever arms of legions reach
And Roman chains are sent.

Why may I not be satiate
With kisses of some boy —
They only rouse my passions spate
I never know such joy

As when through chambers filled with noise
Of wails and pleas and sighs
I stride among my naked boys
With whips that bruise their thighs.

I drift through mists red flaming flung
On hills of ecstasies
As shoulder-wealed and buttock-stung
They shriek and kiss my knees.

Maybe I’d better not be any more realistic about her case — not if I send this through the mail. I find sadism was very common among the ancients, usually accompanying extreme sexuality in the ordinary course, strange as it may seem. Enough of that.
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, Jun 1928, CL1.206-209

An undated poem of the same order, and probably from around the same period:

Strange Passion
Ah, I know black queens whose passions blaze
Alike for girls and slender boys.
I’ve known a girl with lust-curved lips,
A black Swahili, snatch in glee
Her trade-cloth dress above her hips
And for a flogging order me.

And as her bare sleek rump I fanned
She writhed before me on the earth
And shrieked, yet I could understand
Her shrieks were ecstacies and mirth.

For I know women and the length
They go to passion’s trumpet skirl.
And I have felt the speed and strength
Of a slim-limbed Somali girl.

Naked, beneath the ju-ju trees
What time my passion hottest burned,
I lay across her slim, brown knees,
My firm young buttocks bare upturned.

Each time she shook in passion’s hap
With greater strength she gripped and held,
Stretched me stark naked o’er her lap
And beat me till I fairly yelled.

And I have known a Congo queen
Of beauty tinged with tiger-claw,
No joy from sexual sin could glean
Unless at least a thousand saw.

At that I halted — not for long!
She rose up, nude, with flashing eyes,
Unbreeched me there before the throng
And jerked me down between her thighs.

And I have known a queen who shared,
A Niger dame, each brave the right.
Their privy members she compared
For a companion for each night.

Whether or not these and other “lesbian” poems were inspired by Howard’s trip across the border, Howard drew on other sources for their raw material. “Lesbia” shows similarities to Catullus’ poem “To Lesbia” as translated by George Lamb in Poetica Erotica: A Collection of Rare and Curious Amatory Verse (1921), for example, and “A Roman Lady” is explicitly based on an incident in a book—no doubt part of Howard’s library of erotica and curiosa. Glenn Lord, the agent for the Howard estate, suggested these erotic and quasi-erotic works might have been research material, but as Charles Hoffmann noted, the appearance of such themes in Howard’s private poetry “does seem to indicate something more than academic interest.” (Hoffman 2010, 105) and “Howard’s sexual interests extended beyond a simple taste for vanilla.” (Hoffman 2005, 9) The “Congo Queen” in “Strange Passion” recalls the passage of erotic flagellation on a “Certain Congo Queen” in an unknown book which Howard quotes at length in an undated letter. (CL3.474-475) Later in the same letter, Howard wrote:

Then swift the change in fashion, form and shape,
I saw a faint mist shift and fade away —
And there a woman with a woman lay,
In shameful passion and unnatural rape.
Strange were her eyes, ice deep and icy cold,
With passions human soul could never hold;
More cold and white than rarest ivory were
Her upturned, surging buttocks and her thighs,
And firm full breasts, her strange pale moonlight hair
Floated about her shoulders like a cloud;
No whisper broke the silence, still and cowed,
The people cringed before her icy eyes.
Beneath her thighs the woman whimpered twice
Then hid her eyes before those eyes of ice.
- Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, undated, CL3.479-480

Despite laws against selling obscene materials by mail, the 1920s and 30s were a booming era for the publication and distribution of erotic materials. These were often advertised in the pulps and ostensibly under the cover of academic, medical, anthropological, poetic, artistic, and/or literary interest. Because of this, explicit accounts of normal heterosexual relations were less available and advertised than were material denoted to paraphilia:

One would expect that books on flagellation would be summarily condemned. Until the mid-1930s, however, they seem to have been considered either borderline erotica or medical curiosa, and so could be openly sold.
(Gertzman 75)

At the time of his death Howard’s library contained several examples of these works, including a few with lesbian themes—or, at the least, scenes of women whipping or spanking other women. This was a theme not only in erotic works, but for pulp fiction. As such it became a point that came up with regards to Howard’s fiction:

The last yarn I sold to Weird Tales — and it well may be the last fantasy I’ll ever write — was a three-part Conan serial which was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote. I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories, for the reason that degeneracy is so prevalent in such races that even in fiction it can not be ignored as a motive and as a fact if the fiction is to have any claim to realism. I have ignored it in all other stories, as one of the taboos, but I did not ignore it in this story. When, or if, you ever read it, I’d like to know how you like my handling of the subject of lesbianism.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 5 Dec 1935, CL3.393

This is the same story Howard once discussed with his girlfriend Novalyne Price:

Girl, I’m working on a yarn like that now—a Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans and, finally, of all the people. They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires. (Ellis 140)

Novalyne’s response was curt:

There may be a few people like that, but I don’t believe it. The Bible says, ‘Male and female, He created them.’ And that’s the way He intended it, and that’s the way it always will be. Male and female. (Ellis 141)

 Her reaction may be taken as typical for many people at that time and in that area. But Robert E. Howard was never typical, and Weird Tales was more permissive in some respects than other pulp magazines. The story in question was “Red Nails” (Weird Tales Jul-Oct 1936). “Lesbianism” is a curious choice for Howard to use with reference to the story, however, as there is nothing of affection or coitus between two women in the tale—but there is this scene:

"You sulky slut!" she said between her teeth. "I'm going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!"
Yasala made no verbal protest, nor did she offer any resistance, as Valeria carried out the first part of her threat with a fury that her captive's obstinacy only sharpened. Then for a space there was no sound in the chamber except the whistle and crackle of hard-woven silken cords on naked flesh. Yasala could not move her fast-bound hands or feet. Her body writhed and quivered under the chastisement, her head swayed from side to side in rhythm with the blows. Her teeth were sunk into her lower lip and a trickle of blood began as the punishment continued. But she did not cry out.
The pliant cords made no great sound as they encountered the quivering body of the captive; only a sharp crackling snap, but each cord left a red streak across Yasala's dark flesh. Valeria inflicted the punishment with all the strength of her war-hardened arm, with all the mercilessness acquired during a life where pain and torment were daily happenings, and with all the cynical ingenuity which only a woman displays toward a woman. Yasala suffered more, physically and mentally, than she would have suffered under a lash wielded by a man, however strong. (CSC 254)

Winter Elliot remarked on this part of the story:

In stripping the victim, Valeria demonstrates her total control over both her victim’s body and the victim’s sexuality, because her nakedness makes her vulnerable to rape. Valeria also humiliates her in the proces. [...] The girl-on-girl beating reflects the usual social function of women in the tales, to fulfill male desires. For the reader, the graphic scene certainly has the potential to do just that. (Elliot 65)

A little later on, the tables are turned—”Readers are treated to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.” (Hoffmann 2010, 111)—and Valeria has been stripped and held to an altar, where her tormentor explains:

I shall lean upon your bosom and place my lips over yours, and slowly—ah, slowly!—sink this blade through your heart, so that your life, fleeing your stiffening body, shall enter mine, making me bloom again with youth and with life everlasting! (CSC 276)

Which of these, or both, depict the “lesbianism” explicitly suggested by Robert E. Howard? This was not the first scene of female-on-female flagellation in Robert E. Howard’s fiction. (Male-on-female flagellation was more common, see Charles Hoffman’s “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard). So what about this did Howard construe as frank lesbianism?

Lesbians in the Pulps

Open homosexuality would not have been acceptable for a pulp publication. Even in Weird Tales there are very few stories that even hint of lesbianism in the 1920s and 30s. A naked female victim, however, was an image that might titillate while remaining acceptable to editors, readers, and censors. A painting of such a scene might be sufficient for browsers to buy a magazine based on the cover alone. Howard had noted the practice of nudity and flagellation as early as 1932, remarking on the readers:

Their capacity for grisly details seems unlimited, when the cruelty is the torturing of some naked girl, such as Quinn’s stories abound in—no reflection intended on Quinn; he knows what they want and gives it to them. The torture of a naked writhing wretch, utterly helpless—and especially when of the feminine sex amid voluptuous surroundings—seems to excite keen pleasure in some people who have a distaste for wholesale butchery in the heat and fury of a battlefield. (CL2.411)

Margaret Brundage, who illustrated many of the nude covers for Weird Tales, including the July 1936 cover for Howard’s “Red Nails” remarked:

Quinn was smart, though. He realized immediately that Wright was having me do a nude for every cover. So he made sure that each de Grandin story had at least one sequence where the heroine shed all her clothes. Wright then picked Quinn’s stories to be the cover story. (Korshak & Spurlock 19)

Howard picked up on this, and began to incorporate nudes and flagellation in the stories he submitted to Weird Tales as well. This was not limited to women-whipping-women. The flagellation scene in “The Black Stone” being a notable example of male-on-female flagellation in Howard’s work. However, Howard’s understanding of lesbianism appears to bear out in his writing: as a practice where some other activity (in this case, flagellation) is used to excite the senses in place of heterosexual intercourse, and such individuals are not solely homosexual but “usually more or less bisexual” since they can express attraction to both men and women within the same story. Robert E. Howard could not hint of homosexual intercourse in his pulp stories as he did in his private poetry, when he wrote such lines as:

Naked she lay in the filthy dust,
Under the star-dimmed skies,
And the serving wenches trod her down
And spat between her thighs.
They pressed their buttocks to her lips
In the lust of their wanton play; [...]
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, Sep 1930, CL2.70 (“Daughter of Evil”)

1934 edition
...but Howard could and did showcase women who find a cruel pleasure or ecstatic moment in torture of other women. This depiction of bisexuality and sexual torture could also serve as a form of characterization. To Howard and others, the idea that civilizations in decline tended to moral degeneration (read: sexual deviation and homosexuality) was current, popularized by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1919). Women in Howard’s work who display such traits are often from “decadent” civilizations in decline, but who still wield positions of authority or influence—a physical display of cultural and emotional character traits. As one critic put it:

The occurrence of lurid sadomasochistic episodes in such stories serves to heighten an atmosphere of sinful decadence.” (Hoffman 2009, 25)

Howard remarked on this to Novalyne Price in late 1934/early 1935:

A few years ago, I had a hard time selling yarns about...about sex. Now, I’m going to have to work to catch up with the market. I can tell you the demand is growing for more and more sex. In a few years, there won’t be anything held back. [...] It’s the way Rome was when it fell. [...] Girl, I’m working on a yarn like that now—a Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans and, finally, of all the people. They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires. [...] (Price 140-141)

This was the Conan story that evidently became “Red Nails”—but it was not the first story Howard wrote that involved these themes. Howard never characterized these previous efforts as “Lesbianism” in his surviving letters, but if considered in the sense of women with certain characteristics (high sensuality, position of authority, member of a declining civilization, performs acts of sensuality and/or flagellation against other women), then several “lesbians” become apparent in Howard’s stories. “Lesbianism” tends to be set in far-away times and places, and the women involved tend to be exotic or foreign: these are techniques to distance the act from the readers, making suggestions of homosexuality or paraphilia more palatable. Such “lesbians” also tend to be of different race than their victim, and strip their victim and engage in flagellation for purposes of inflicting pain or humiliation, rather than punishment.

Humiliation is a key aspect to Howard’s lesbian scene: the female victims are stripped naked, which adds not just a sexual spectacle for possible cover illustration, but increases the mental as well as physical suffering of the victim. These powerful females are being sadistic in the classical sense of achieving sexual gratification from the infliction of pain and suffering, rather than being merely cruel, or acting on sexual desire. The victim becomes an unwilling partner in this “perversity,” and suffers at the knowledge of it. For example, in “Hawks Over Egypt,” where the woman Zulaikha has bought her rival Zaida as a slave, an interloper intrudes on Zulaikha’s house and finds:

[...] the naked, quivering figure that lay stretched out and bound hand and foot to a divan. She had not yet worked her full will on her rival. What she had already done had been but an amusing prelude to torture, mutilation and death—agonizing only in its humiliation. All hell could not take her victim from her. (SW 61)

That Zulaikha purchased Zaida emphasizes how lesbian relationships are never consensual in Howard’s stories. One woman is always the dominant and aggressive partner, the act of stripping them nude is always tantamount to rape.

In part, this emphasis on dominant women stems from Howard’s inspiration on the dominant-female-in-a-decadent-city aesthetic of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan stories (La of Opar) and H. Rider Haggard’s She series (Ayesha). These provide the template for characters like Queen Nakari and the alien queen Yasmeena, right down to the strange love triangles where a male hero is torn between two women, one “good girl” and one “bad girl.” However, the original stories generally lack the lesbian subtext or female-on-female flagellation scenes of Howard’s narratives.

In several cases in Howard’s fiction the two women, flagellant and victim, are depicted as being of different race, or one lighter and one fairer in hair and complexion. The implicit understanding is that this contributes to the differentiation in characterization, power, and status between the individuals, and may in part drive the conflict and lust of the story. This is part of the complex attitudes Howard had regarding women and race, and the “Lilith and Eve” imagery of two women in juxtaposition, one sensual or decadent and the other relatively pure, is found in several of his writings.


ASF     Adventures in Science Fantasy
BCC    The Bloody Crown of Conan
CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
COC    The Coming of Conan
CSC    The Conquering Sword of Conan
HS       The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
PF       Pictures in the Fire
PS       Pirate Stories
SA       Spicy Adventures
SK       The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
SN       Swords of the North
SO       Sentiment: an Olio of Rarer Works
SW      Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures
WS      Western Stories

Other Works Cited

Cerasini, Marc A. & Hoffman, Charles (1987). Robert E. Howard Starmont Reader’s Guide 35. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House.
Elliot, Winter (2013). “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian Age” in Jonas Prida (ed.) Conan Meets the Academy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co.
Ellis, Novalyne Price (1998). One Who Walked Alone. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant.
Freud, Sigmund (1920). Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. trans. A. A. Brill. Retrieved from:
Garber, Eric & Paleo, Lyn (1983). Uranian Worlds: A Reader’s Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & co.
Gertzman, Jay A. (2002). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hoffman, Charles (2005). “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures” in Leo Grin (ed.) The Cimmerian vol. 2, no. 5. Also available online at:
Hoffman, Charles (2009). “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard” in Charles Gramlich, Mark Hall, & Jeffrey Kahan (eds.) The Dark Man vol. 4, no. 2. Also available online at:
Hoffman, Charles (2010). “Return to Xuthal” in Darrell Schweitzer (ed.) The Robert E. Howard Reader. The Borgo Press. Also available online at:
Lefanu, Sarah (1989). Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press.
Leiber, Fritz (1984). “Howard’s Fantasy” in Don Herron (ed.) The Dark Barbarian. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Korshak, Stephen D. and Spurlock, J. David. (2013). The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage. FL: Vanguard Publishing and Shasta-Phoenix Publishers.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda (2006). “Dark Agnes: A Critical Overview of Robert E. Howard’s Sword Woman” in Damon Sasser (ed). Two-Gun Raconteur no. 9.
Trout, Steven R. (2004). “Heritage of Steel: Howard and the Frontier Myth” in Don Herron (ed.) The Barbarian Triumph. Wildside Press.

1 comment:

Victorian Barbarian said...

At least some of the occasions when La of Omar has Tarzan bound on the altar of the Flaming God have overtones of sadism or at least a sexual subtext; an on one occasion, Jane is the potential victim. To an imaginative reader with limited access to overt erotica (as Howard clearly was), these incidents—and some of the situations in the Mars books as well—might have retroactively served as inspiration for Howard’s treatment of “Lesbianism.”